Six years ago, Mr Stephen Gatimu attended an annual agricultural trade fair in Zanzibar to learn how to improve his agribusiness. At at the forum, the Nakuru-based farmer and an Information Technology expert met a Rwandan national who introduced him to chia farming.
“The Rwandan man was among other exhibitors whose product caught my attention. After explaining to me the simplicity in production and benefits of chia seeds I bought four kilos of the seeds from him,” he says.
After returning home, Mr Gatimu gave a kilo of the seeds to a diabetic friend and he was impressed how his health improved.
“After taking the seeds with his meals, his condition gradually improved and was able to control blood sugar levels tremendously. I multiplied the remaining seeds which I can now plant on bigger farms,” he says.
Gatimu was previously a pyrethrum farmer but turned to potato farming following the collapse of the industry. Exploitation and bad market conditions in the potato sub-sector forced him to quit and opt for chia farming.
“I can’t compare the returns I used to get from other crops to what I earn from chia seeds. So far so good,” says the farmer.
About the crop
Chia crop which has its origin in Mexico is grown for its seeds and is slowly gaining popularity among farmers in Kuresoi after discovering a lucrative market.
The seeds are tiny and multi-coloured with a wide spectrum of uses either as seeds or after grounding into powder.
A farmer starts by obtaining seeds in the local shops at Sh2,000 per kilo. An acre requires ten kilos of the seeds. He then tills the land to loosen the soil before making shallow farrows, one and a half feet wide. Agricultural experts recommend two feet as standard spacing.
No inorganic fertiliser is needed at planting. Farmers however have the option to apply manure depending on the soil fertility.
The seeds start germinating after five days and do not require high amount of rainfall. Weeding is done twice on the third week and after two months. Farmers are advised to spray the crop with a foliar fertiliser twice during growth.
In the second month, the two feet tall crop turns the farm into a purple plantation during its flowering stage. Mr Gatimu says at this stage the farm becomes a home to many bees collecting nectar from the flowers.
“The flowers attract huge swarms of bees but the flowers drop after the third month when the crop starts drying. Normally the crop matures in four months but may take up to five months in cold areas,” he says.
Farmers pinpoint the crop’s readiness for harvesting by picking dry husks and threshing them using hands to release the tiny seeds.
Selective harvesting can be done to avoid losing the already dry seeds which may drop on the ground if left for long.
Mr Gatimu says the cost of production is manageable since the crop is hardy and resistant to most pests and diseases.
“There is minimal application of chemicals during the period reducing the cost of production. I don’t know of any disease that attacks chia. It is only birds which become a problem if it overstays on the farms,” he says.
Farmers have been using traditional methods to thresh the husks. This leads to post-harvest losses and is cumbersome and time consuming.
Gatimu has modified a machine used in threshing maize which can now thresh and separate seeds from the chaff.
“Traditional techniques such as pounding the husks on a flat surface was not effective. Some seeds would be left in the husks and was also more labour intensive. This has been minimised through the modified machine,” said Gatimu.
During the five years, Gatimu has been in Chia farming, he has been harvesting an average of 400 killos in a good harvest per acre. Apart from selling the produce to the local market, he has multiplied the seeds and has a five-acre plantation of Chia. The returns have enabled him add value to the seeds by venturing into packaging of the seeds into smaller quantities.
“Farm gate prices are usually Sh500 due to middlemen. If a farmer sells all the produce on the farm he will be able to fetch at least Sh200,000 in a single harvest. A 250 grams of the packed seeds fetches Sh600,” says Gatimu.
His success has drawn more farmers into chia farming where they have formed a cooperative through which they are targeting to produce the seeds in large scale for export.
“We have formed a sacco that has 100 members, farmers who have committed themselves to produce chia,” says Gatimu.
Chia seeds can be used by soaking them in warm water to dissolve their oil forming a jelly which can be drank directly or on salads, drinks, yogurt, oatmeal, bread and pan frying.